Chapter 9 - The Laniakea Corps
10639 had given me her only electric lamp, for which I was extremely grateful. In the pitch I could see nothing and would likely have fallen down the rotted, rusted-out steps leading from the hatch opening. Though the entryway was small, it lead to an extremely deep shaft, with a long and still-sturdy metal support structure. It took a long time for my legs to make their way to the bottom. When they did, it felt like I was stepping on chunks of uneven cement. There were hard, jagged rocks all over. The lamp showed them to be the remains of a former wall. It felt, metaphorically, like a dead end.
“There’s nothing to see here,” I said to myself. I hadn’t felt the reverberations of any relay transmissions that may have been free flowing from a former Hall of Records. I also noted that whatever the light touched, none of it thus far looked at all like the remains of any kind of books or computer equipment, or anything to get my hopes up. But instead of climbing all the way back up I decided to track through every inch of the place I could find. It obviously was built for something. And there was plenty to explore. The long ladder led to an extremely wide area. Dactilons of today had no idea how long ago the Rheans invaded, so I couldn’t guess the decades, or perhaps centuries since this space had been used by...us. Our kind. The idea hit me all at once.
Ever since I was a child every building, monument, piece of technology, was made by them. The tech that 303 and the Revolution work on is co-opted from elsewhere. The relays, my old books and this place were the only things I’d ever seen to have been built by natives of Dactil. And it made me proud to walk through the ruins. This subterranean cave had more secrets to tell. I simply needed to ask. I didn’t know why I felt that need, but I called out.
“Hello. Hello? Is anyone here?”
There was no reason for me to ask the question out loud. All was still in the darkness, and exceedingly silent. 10639 latched the door shut from her floor. There was only me. Or so I had excellent reason to believe. But I called out again anyway.
“Is someone here? Someone else? My name is Grady Manorong. I’m looking for the Hall of Records.” No answer. Neither an audible answer nor a telepathic one. There were no other dots on my mind map down here. The only thing that was different - if my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me, was a dollop of light in the distance and to the right. I looked at it, then looked at other patches of blackness. Yes, that spot was brighter than the rest. But was it always there? Was it a trick of the imagination? It called for further exploration. So I walked, and stumbled down from jagged rocks. The flashlight showed me an incredibly dilapidated floor but only in my immediate vicinity. Further out there is no hole, however there was no knowing whether the ground would be steady or if my weight would send it collapsing as well.
At the moment, there was little time for levity or musing about what to do. I was stuck halfway below the floor and perhaps the oldest sewer system in the world. Although I was relatively powerful, there was a real chance I could get stuck or crushed or both. Either way would result in my death. So I needed to tread as carefully as possible up the cascaded debris and onto firm ground. When I got to the flat floor of the place, I crawled on my hands and knees, putting the flashlight in my mouth to light the way. Crawling on all fours and getting closer to my area of interest, I began to see the outlines of things like desks and pipes and even wires. The hole may have swallowed those nearby things, making it look sparser but as I got away from the chasm it became clear that this facility was heavily used at some point.
That inkling was confirmed as I passed shards of glass and metallic shells. And the light I’d questioned at first was brighter and brighter with each careful movement closer to it. I could tell at this point that the light led to another chamber slightly out of the way, but I didn’t realize the effort it would take to get there until I saw that in front of the lit area the ceiling had caved in. It had fallen in a way that most of the debris formed a tightly compacted pile as high as my keen eyes could see. But somewhere around the height of my head, there was a small tunnel leading to the source of the glow. It was very narrow, but I probably could fit, I thought to myself as I approached the unintended wall.
I stood up carefully, then lined my eye with the gravity-made tunnel in front of me. I took a dusty breath. This was going to be tight. And any wrong move, a cough or a muscle reflex of panic, could cause tons of rubble to fall directly on top of me. I had to make a decision right then and there: go through and risk death or turn around, climb back up to 10639 and try to return with more equipment from base. The answer became clear: I could not turn around. There was no getting back to this place because there would be no good pretense to bring equipment from the outside to the Knath’s living quarters. It’d be far too suspicious. Besides, there was risk in returning to go up the rickety ladder, if I could even reach it again at this point. No, as in most parts of life the best thing to do was move ahead. Continue forward, come what may.
I hardened my skin, though this action had some drawbacks. For one thing, it wouldn’t exactly save me in case of a complete cave-in, and for another it restricted my range of motion. Where it benefited me was that it could save my life in case of a partial cave-in, and I was hoping that was more likely than the alternative scenario. I gingerly pushed up and poked my head into the tunnel, merging the flashlight with the eerie luminescence coming from the other side. The fact that there was anything visible at all from the other side meant that the way was clear. At least thus far. Under me were compacted small rocks. Mere inches above my head was a single giant slab that must have retained its previous shape; I was very grateful that it hadn’t splintered apart. The proper motion for me to undertake was to forgo the use of my legs. I pulled myself forward. I pulled until I was just as far from the light as I was from the dark. This was the scariest place to be because now there was no turning back. I began to hear either a grumble, groan or a hum - something that was muffled by the rocks.
“Please be a hum, please be a hum,” I muttered to myself. Getting to the end, I found that the hole narrowed near the light. My head could fit through but my shoulders would have a hard time. I began to panic, thinking about just how close I was to exiting and yet how stuck I was. There was a single sharp rock overhanging the hole. I had the strength to push it out of the way, but this would have risked the slab above me collapsing. Maybe the jut was an unimportant marble, or maybe it supported the entire tunnel structure. The only thing I could do that carried the lowest risk to my wellbeing, was to “dig” under myself. To toss any loose rocks I could find from the floor of the tunnel in order to get out. This would displace less weight above and more below, though it was risky to displace anything.
As soon as the exit was just wide enough, I rushed out of there. A wave of relief rushed over me when I felt my shoulders make it through. That may have caused a premature celebration on my part as I hastily got my hips and then legs out. I put my arms out to touch the ground, putting me awkwardly upside-down. My right toe grazed against the pointy top rock, which caused it to wobble. It made a sound that was definitely not a hum but the gritty crunchiness of hundreds of tons of hard stuff. I ran as far as I could away from the pile, still with the flashlight in my mouth. Turning back I saw the top above the hole lean backward and collapse in a thunderous clap of dust. I hoped that no one topside heard that; I did not want to be executed as a result of my first mission.
On the other hand, if that immovable hill was my only escape, then a rescue was an attractive proposition. Well, in that moment the pragmatist in me took over. I would suspend freaking out until I explored and found what I set out to find. I got this far, I might as well see what was here.
On the other side of The Pile the floor was much smoother and sturdier. It had a “large bunker” feeling to it, every surface lined with reinforced tungsten. The glow that I’d been following was still some ways away, around another far corner. Approaching the corner, I could see how bright the light really was. It must have been hundreds, or even thousands of years since anyone living set foot into this place...how could a light be on? Unless there was some kind of modified insect or lichen living down here generating bioluminescence.
As I entered the lit room, I was amazed. It looked just like what I’d imagined a museum must have looked like. There were specimens in tubes, computers on desks and in terminals, and displays within glass. It didn’t look like a Hall of Records, exactly. But it did have an abundant amount of tech to go around - the records may have been in either electronic, photonic or protonic form. And they may have even been accessible! If the lights were on, what were the chances that the memory and storage systems might still be at least partially working? Unless the overthrow took place a generation or two ago? Couldn’t be. This entire facility was under auxiliary power; that was obvious because it was pale blue and orange. From learning with Targen and Margol about advanced light-emitting diodes, I knew that some materials allowed the flow of photons for practically ten thousand years. But what source were they connected to?
Plumbing further into the elongated chamber, I got to what looked like the main atrium of the place. It was in a word, pristine. The floor had only a thin patina of dust that probably fused to it by now. All the large glass test tubes were intact and full of murky liquid. I could see many terminal banks lined up, lashed together by wires, but none were operational. Retrievable? I may have the rest of my life to check it out, I thought. I decided to follow the direction of the cables, which led to a short pedestal, within which was what looked like a utility belt that had advanced tech integrated with it. It was dark, sleek and metallic, with buttons and lights lining the left and right straps. In the center there was a single red oval crystal that appeared to be horizontal. Within the center of the oval, there was a pinpoint of red light.
It was steady. Steady. Then it blinked. Slowly the light strobed, then faster until the entire crystal lit up. I could see other colors within the red. It looked like all of them and yet didn’t look white as they fluttered together. I put my head up to the glass casing in front of it, which also sported a permanent skin of dust. Almost all at once, I could feel the object attempting a telepathic connection. And for some reason, I let it happen. My guard was down, not to mention that I’d made almost nothing but mistakes since I joined the Spoofers. What harm could one more do?
Well, it could have been worse. I was lucky, I thought to myself in that moment, since I was unable to expel the intrusion into my mind; the thing was too powerful. It didn’t seem to seek any information in particular, was just checking for my level of consciousness, intelligence and intentions. It wanted to get a sense of me, give me a mental “pat-down” before engaging. I could feel that it decided my intentions were good enough, and all other criteria were acceptable. Rather than speak in my head, it spoke out loud in my language.
“I am the artificial intelligence coupled with this Rancorian Belt. I belong to Agent Hashmina, badge number 778, rank of Lieutenant in the Laniakaea Corps. She is now dead. She will be replaced. I must return to Aurea to charge my core and petition for help. Please...Grady, take me above ground.”
Though it spoke with a flawless accent, I did not understand a thing. “What do you mean?” I nearly barked. I wanted to comprehend but this was worse than gibberish to me. It was nonsense.
“I am unable to move about without a host. I am a significantly advanced piece of technology, with a full suite of functionality including the establishment of ports and arranging travel through them, a range of weapons abilities, flight, energy projection, the generation of holograms, and many other novel capacities. I need to be reunited with the Corps, Grady...Manorong. I usually have a built-in defense system to prevent unauthorized use but I have seen your mind and determined you worthy of limited access. We must go and petition the Commissioner to send reinforcements to Orongo.”
It took a long time to respond as the low power AI considered what to say. It began to leaf through my mind before finding the right page. “Planet...Dactil. That is what you call it today. The Rhean Empire attacked a long time ago...I must run calculations to determine the passage of time since the first wave. My core power is at 11%. Assessing that I was at 93% when the primary Rhean attack began and compensating for energy expenditures in a low-output setting...I have determined that the time I have been down here is 9,953 of your years.”
What? We have been subjects for nearly ten thousand years? The injustice of it felt palatably worse than if it had happened more recently. Our status had become our de facto lot in life. This was not our new normal, this was all of it.
“What do you need from me? And can you help us get out of here? The ceiling’s caved in in some places. Some parts of the floor are also missing.”
“Yes, I can get us out. But I need to siphon power from a large source. If necessary, I may be able to draw solar power from your suns, but I require over 270 days of full light to get the amount that I require to fuel teleportation. Upon charging myself up to 38%, we will need to go into outer space and find a porting bridge.”
“Do you know how far away the nearest one is?”
“There should be one in orbit around Bulak, a gas giant in this solar system. I can take us to space as soon as I recharge.”
Not comprehending the odd situation I was in until I found myself negotiating with an artificial intelligence, I said, “Fine. I’ll take you where you need to go. I promise - you can scan my mind to make sure I’m telling the truth. What I want is your help in return. And not just to get out of this place.”
“It is my primary mission to be of service to the Laniakaea Corps. This is my main function, though I have daughter functions. I must go back as soon as possible.”
Now I found myself in an even more absurd situation - arguing with an AI. “Hold up, if I hadn’t walked over here then you would have never been found. In a thousand more years your power level would have been zero, thus precluding any help you could have given this Corps thing. But I did find you and I can go ahead and choose to turn away right now. Unless we have a deal. If you help me, I help you. Yes?”
The AI took an extra moment to think about it. “Yes. I will help you, but not for war. We may speak to the people, to give them hope. But in reality, my return to Aurea may be the best remedy for Orongo. We must petition the Commissioner for help. Although...they may not help.”
“The Corps intervenes in interplanetary and galactic struggles only when the victimized party is a Level 1 society or above. After foraging through your mind I can see that Orongo is no longer at that level. By my crude calculation, it would be Level 0.18.”
I didn’t respond to that suggestion. Whatever it took to make things right, is what it would have to take. I began to tap on the glass and the pedestal on which the Rancorian Belt rested. Though I had been handling it well from my perspective, I was starting to freak out from the thought that I could get permanently stuck underground so I punched the glass as hard as I could, splintering it. Then I did what only felt logical with a belt...I put it on.
Right away I could feel the thrumming power coursing within it and through me. The belt gave me night vision, where I could see as far as if the full lights were on ten thousand years ago. I almost wished that I didn’t have that ability, for now I could clearly see old bodies strewn about, some lying, some leaning. All were long skeletonized. With my newfound vision, I saw a circle form around a corpse that was lying prone. In my head I could feel the belt communicating to me, “This is Agent Hashmina.” Before I could ask, it continued, “She was charging me; this pedestal was once connected to an active power grid. She was preparing to port back and request reinforcements when a heavy barrage of bombs destroyed a canister filled with troponium gas somewhere above us. It was enough to kill thousands in total but within this Hall, which served a dual function as a bunker and staging area in case of emergency, there were only twenty-seven. They died instantly.”
Calculations were being made before my eyes, with squares and circles hovering around aspects of the darkness. Behind the wall of the pristine atrium, there was solid rock for at least a mile in that direction. So I began to backtrack, finding more bodies on the way. All exits were blocked. Old stairwells had become rubble. But I saw a large green oval around an odd, vertical rectangular cut-out. There were parts of fallen wall around it, but the thing appeared to be remarkably solid. Metallic. I walked around to the other side to see what it could be and was happily amazed. It was an old elevator shaft, the ancient remains of the elevator having been crushed long ago. This Hall must have been the very bottom. Last floor. Everybody out.
The walls of the shaft were durable and walking around to where the entrance of the lift would have been, it was obvious that a small chance existed that I could climb out of there. But that wasn’t the intent of the belt. Walking through an opening in the shaft, I began to levitate. A tiny, nearly imperceptible yellow bubble formed around my whole body. I guessed it was some kind of force field in case of falling remnants. Then I bolted up the narrow tunnel, able to see everything in impeccable detail. Our way was clear for several hundred feet.
The top of the structure opened up to the lowest level of a facility in Rangor. It led to a substructure where power lines crisscrossed beneath a native population management center. There were quarry and chisel symbols etched onto labels wrapped around wires. It took some squeezing through tight places but I finally climbed out of a grate that maintenance technicians normally access and which were typically off-limits in a power closet. Walking out of the power closet, I found myself in a garage where government employees drove in and out. There were several people there now heading into and out of their vehicles. And yet they did not see me. It was very busy, with far more people around than I thought.
I had been to population management centers before, mainly for routine physicals, education checks and lastly for my initial work referral in the quarry. I didn’t know how massive this operation was; it looked to me that there was some kind of shift change happening right now. This place must have been open all day long. This made sense at least on a temporary basis, since coordinating the feast of Ramstaad usually required a bit of effort and input from the Dactilon community. The day always coincided with another yearly event - the alignment of the planet with our suns. Unlike many other solar systems, the orbits within our binary system were nearly circular and very stable. Although orbiting on roughly different planes every revolution, for a single day, Hano would line up in front of Rano, causing a magnificent star-on-star eclipse. That vista was always beautiful. The holiday was for families; it was for all of us. In many ways, it was our one day out of a long year to be free.
For myself in the past, before joining 303 and his crew, the day was marked by food, allowed to us by our overlords. Nearly all the inhabitants of Orong City would pile into long tables and eat. We would speak freely and were allowed to discuss anything at all that we wanted. There were oral stories passed down from before the empire, like those of Mirone and Tannen. It was always funny to me how in our culture’s telling, Tannen was the hero, not the dragon. And yet in the other tale Mirone was the hero, not Captain Siib. We were even at liberty to badmouth the Rheans, so long as we never took our resentment too far. A strong idea needed to be stunted by inaction, because incarceration laws were even stricter on Ramstaad.
It didn’t need to be - it never needed to be. Every single one of us remained in line. “Docile” was a favorite terminology of the oppressors. They spoke about us the way they would speak of a pet lizard or a tamed Ang Ang. The greatest part of the day was after partaking the food. We closed our eyes and our minds linked up. The entire tent city would be connected. We shared dreams, feelings of happiness and contentment. None of us would add any suffering or darkness to our collective consciousness. It made the day feel like a week, or even longer to some. One thing I could confirm from having had a lifetime of holidays was that my people never lost hope. However they had lost ambition long, long ago. Roughly ten thousand years, in fact.
With the Rancorian belt in my possession albeit temporarily, I had my secret weapon. I knew what I had to do, and it had everything to do with the feast. During the solemn consolidation of minds, I would use the technology’s incredible resources to boost my reach to all Dactilons in the world. We would coordinate plans as one people, and strike most effectively when the Legion departs for war upon Lila. As the belt tracked my thoughts, it displayed information before my eyes that it deemed pertinent to my thought processes. It stated that “Planet Lila, as of 10,000 Orong years ago, was a Level 0.43 Planet. By now it may have met the threshold for protection by the Laniakaea Corps. We must return to Aurea to alert the Commission.”
I responded with my full intention to do so - after Ramstaad. After the expulsion of the Rheans which would serve a dual purpose to protect both this planet, and potentially Lila as well by sabotaging equipment stored on Dactil. The more Legionnaires incapacitated, the better for all of the oppressed and threatened planets. Rhea’s main storage facilities on-planet were in Rangor, no question. They kept many hangars and more than a couple of sky-sized “motherships” within Rangor’s gargantuan confines. I could guess that because beyond the lyceum and all the buildings shared by natives, there was nothing but military complexes as far as the eyes could see. Dactil, verging on the biggest rocky planet scientifically possible while remaining intact, had a lot of surface area. Much more than the home planet of Rhea, in fact. So here, a place full of docile subjects with plenty of space, was a great home for storage of weapons.
No Dactilon would be anywhere near Rangor’s city limits during the festivities. The closest place might be Orong City, fifty-odd miles away. There was a lot of potential to do something - the AI within this belt did not necessarily know what a blessing it was to me for my dream of overthrowing the Legion, but I was sure it could learn.
I walked past government workers and Legionnaires who didn’t see me, straight down to the great wall delineating civilization and wilderness. I leapt over it and flew, again in a bubble of yellow, much, much faster than even a hover-flash could take me. I was headed to the Spoofer Cave to tell 303 that I found a great weapon we could utilize for our cause. That it would work because our enemies will have vastly underestimated us. In war, surprise was often a greater contributor to success than the number of boots on the ground. I wanted to tell Linna I was careful, but more importantly I wanted to tell her that I was fighting for the greatest purpose of all - us. I wanted to have a family with her, living in our world, one we had helped make. Safe and liberated for all to see. I wanted to ask her to have a child with me; a symbol of the brightest future. Too much was dark and murky behind us. The past may have been unforgiving but at least it was buried deep. There was room for new memories to grow, a new world to be born. I had read about bodies of water, of forests and trees, rather than the deserts that all my people now know - save for those who toil in Ventrello. Maybe there was some way we could re-form this desolate place.
The Spoofer Cave was just over the horizon. I was almost there when an Ang Ang blocked my path. “Get out of the way!” I snarled, shooing at it with my arms and beginning to walk around it.
“No,” it replied, to my utmost surprise. And further to my astonishment, the voice sounded like someone I’d met. It sounded like…
“Prime Elder? Is that you?”
It nodded its dry, thorny white head. It began to shuffle up towards me and made a throaty exhalation that was characteristic of this species. It looked me over, perhaps recognizing that something was different, perhaps bristling at the power coming off of me. Maybe it, he, whatever - knew about the Belt that I now wore around my waist. The belt that was a partner that I was engaged in a symbiotic relationship with, one where neither of us was master. The Ang Ang may not have known about this specific weapon, but the Prime had impeccable intuition.
“Abandon folly, Grady. You will destroy us all. If all empires whimper out eventually, the Rheans have not yet met that downfall. They remain at their peak, regardless of how long the occupation has been. They are too powerful to trick; they respond to one insult with a thousand, one drop of spit with the death of an entire village. What can you and this ‘weapon’ do against them?”
The creature was far more powerful than I had been; the Prime would be what I could become with decades of training. He found a loophole around death - to send his consciousness outside his body to another mind and inhabit other physicalities. He was strong, but lacked the imagination of how he could use these effortless abilities for the good of his people. Maybe I gave him too much credit - maybe he liked to eat meat, dates, olives and to drink wine. Maybe he never thought to mobilize the Dactilate because he personally benefited from this preposterous arrangement. If you push something off ten thousand years...then it’s probably never going to happen.
“How old are you?” I asked.
The question perked up the thing’s mandibles, upon which four unique holes on the sides were used for auditory canals. It clicked its lower pinchers and made a low resonant caw but it didn’t respond.
“With the ability to jump from one body to the next unimpeded, you could have been alive for thousands of years. So. Were you? Were you?”
It nodded again. “I was a junior member of the Rangor Senate, old enough to have mastered my craft. I was alive for the bombings that destroyed this planet. I, like most of the people on Orong - that was the name of our home, was a Fire-Heart. When the desolation came, I was there. I was one of the very few to survive. I belonged to the group of legislators that negotiated our surrender. The rest all died quietly, but I have been moving on, over-writing my mind onto newer generations, steadily winning Prime status each time. Grady, my intention is the same as yours but my vision is longer. Given my unique history and point of view, you must listen. Don’t be hasty - I see our rise ahead. Rashness threatens our freedom. Join the future; I can teach you the ways. Let us plan Dactil’s liberation together. You may have to shed your skin a few times but you will taste a world of self-determination for all of us.”
I nodded but not in agreement. His words were tempting but there was something coming off of him that I could not trust. I may not have been as strong a telepath as he, and I didn’t need to be. With my newfound “Rancor-vision”, I saw a statistic pop up into my line of sight: 87% Chance of Deception. He was, in all likelihood, lying.
“But the people I know and love, my friends in the Spoofer Revolution would not see it. They would not taste it too.”
“No,” it said. It turned around, towards the direction I was traveling, and then back to me. “They will neither taste tomorrow.” Then the thing’s eyes went white and it collapsed into convulsions on the sand. The Prime had left the Ang Ang’s shell. And now with terror in my heart I raced to the Cave, arriving there in under twenty seconds.
When I arrived I saw four Legionnaires, all dead, lying on the sand as if they’d fallen while exiting the cave. Trailing behind them were dark droplets of fresh blood. And silence. I ran within as quickly as I could muster and I found everyone in my group accounted for, in pools of their own life essence. They’d been shot with energy blasts from the soldiers’ dories. All of the equipment we’d possessed had been destroyed; a fire was raging deep within the cave. And Linna, my...my what? My girlfriend...never-to-be-wife, was limp and devoid of all fire. The first thing I felt when I saw what had befallen my brethren - 303 decapitated, Targen and Margol practically incinerated - was utmost rage. Rage against the Prime, and against this whole system as a single unit. But for now, looking upon Linna’s gentle face, her eyes yet windows to a gentle soul that formerly occupied them, I too became silent.